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Medieval Sourcebook:
Tales of the Devil

The following tales are from sermon stories from these three writers.

Jacques de Vitry was born probably before 1180, studied theology at Paris, and was ordained priest in 1210. He preached first in 1213 in favor. of the crusade against the Albigenses. The following year he led a large army of crusaders to the siege of Toulouse. He next preached a crusade against the Saracens. In 1214 he was elected bishop of Acre, was approved by the Pope in 1215, and was consecrated 1216. He took a prominent part in the crusade of 1218-1221. In the winter of 1219-1220 he wrote his well known historical work. In 1226 or 1227 he resigned his bishopric, and devoted himself again to preaching the crusade against the Albigenses. In1228 he was made a cardinal, and bishop of Tusculum. In 1239, probably, he was elected patriarch of Jerusalem. He died about 1240. The anecdotes quoted are taken from the exempla in the sermones vulgares, ad status or ad omne hominum genus, 74 in number. Thes eexempla have been edited with great learning by Thomas Frederick Crane, M. A., under the title The Exempla of Jacques de Vitry, for the Folk Lore Society, 1890. This is the best work on the subject.

Étienne de Bourbon, a Dominican, was born towards the end of the twelfth century and died about 1261. In his youth be passed some years in the schools of the church of Saint-Vincent at Macon. Later be studied at the University of Paris. In his writings there are a number of interesting anecdotes concerning student-life in his days. As an inquisitor he acquired much information about,the heretics, which he incorporated in his writings. Although he was zealous in his work he was prudent, and rejected many fables current about the heretics. He wrote sermons which were popular and widely used. The title shows his purpose, Tractatus de diversis materiis praedicabilibus. The tales used in this pamphlet are from Anecdotes Historiques, Légendes et Apolologues tirés du recueil inédit d'Etienne de Bourbon, dominicain duxiiie siècle, publés pour la Société de l'Histoire de France, par A. Lecoy de la Marche, Paris, 1877.

Caesar of Heisterbach was born about 1180, possibly in Cologne, and died before 1250. He was " master of the novices " and prior in the monastery at Heisterbach. His Dialogue was one of the commonest sources for sermon-stories. The best edition of his work is Caesarii Heisterbacensis monachi ordinis Cisterciensis Dialogus Miraculroum, edited by Strange, 2 Vols., Paris, 1851. The biographical facts given above are taken mainly from the introductions to the editions cited.

The object of these sermon-stories was to arouse interest and to convey moral truths. Jacques de Vitry said, " It is necessary to employ a great many proverbs, historical stories and anecdotes, especially when the audience is tired and begins to gett sleepy." Etienne de Bourbon said that Jacques owed his great success to this practice. The use of anecdotes spread rapidly and widely, and many collections have been preserved. For bibliographies and examples see… Hauréau: Notices et Extraits de quelques manuscrits latins de la Bibliothéque nationale, 6 vols., Paris, 1890-93.



Caesar of Heisterbacb, Dist. V, Cap. XI. (Vol. I, p. 291)

When our abbot was celebrating mass last year on the Mount of the Holy Saviour near Aachen, a possessed woman was brought to him after the mass. When he had read the gospel lesson concerning the Ascension over her head and at these words, "They shall lay hands on sick and they shall recover," had placed his hand upon her head, the devil gave such a terrible roar that we were all terrified. Adjured depart, he replied, "The Most High does not wish it yet." When asked in what manner he entered, he did not reply nor did he permit the woman to reply. Afterward she confessed that when her husband in anger said, "Go to the devil 1" she felt the latter enter through her ear. Moreover that woman was from the province of Aachen and very well known.


Caesar of Heisterbacb, Dist. VIII, Cap. LIX. (Vol.II, p.131ff)

In a village which is called Holenbach there lived a certain knight named Gerard. His grandsons are still living, and hardly a man can found in that village who does not know the miracle which I am king to tell about him. He loved St. Thomas the Apostle so ardently and honored him so especially above the other saints that he never refused any pauper seeking alms in the name of that one. Moreover he was accustomed to offer to the saint Many private services, such as prayers, fasts and the celebration of masses.

One day, by the permission of God, the devil, the enemy of all good men, knocking at the knight's gate, in the form and dress of a pilgrim, sought hospitality in the name of St. Thomas. He was admitted with all haste and, since it was chilly and he pretended to be catching cold, Gerard gave to him his own fur cape, which was not badly worn, to cover himself with when he went to bed. When the next morning he who had seemed a pilgrim did not appear, and the cape was sought and not found, his wife in anger said to the knight, " You have often been deceived by wanderers of this kind and yet You persist in your superstitions But he replied calmly, "Do not be disturbed, St. Thomas will certainly make good this loss to us." The devil did this in order to provoke the knight to impatience on account of the loss of his cape, and to extinguish in his heart his love for the Apostle. But what the devil had prepared for his destruction redounded to the glory of the knight; by it the latter was incited the more strongly, the former was confused and punished. For after a little time Gerard wanted to go to the abode of St. Thomas, and when he was all ready to start, he broke a gold ring into two pieces before the eyes of his wife, and joining them together in her presence, gave one piece to her and kept the other himself, saying, "You ought to trust this token. Moreover, I ask you to wait five years for my return, and after that you can marry any one you please." And she promised.

He went on a very long journey and at length with great expense and very great labor reached the city of St. Thomas the Apostle. There he was saluted most courteously by the citizens and received with as great kindness as if he had been one of them and well known to them. Ascribing this favor to the blessed Apostle he entered the oratory and prayed, commending himself, his wife, and all his possessions to the saint. After this, remembering the limit fixed, and thinking that the five years ended on that very day, he groaned and said, "Alas! my wife will now marry some other man." God had delayed his journey on account of what is to follow.

When he looked around in sorrow he saw the above mentioned demon walking about in his cape. And the demon said, "Do you know me, Gerard?" He said, it No, I do not know you, but I know cape." The demon replied, "I am he who sought hospitality from you in the name of the Apostle; and I carried off your cape, for which I have been severely punished." And he added, "I am the devil, and I am commanded to carry you back tto your own house before nightfall, because your wife has married another man and is now sitting with him at the wedding banquet." Taking him up, the devil crossed in part of a day from India to Germany, from the east to the west, and about twilight placed him in his own house without injury

Entering his own house like a stranger, when he saw his own wif eating with her spouse, he drew near and in her sight taking out the half of the ring, he sent it to her in a cup. When she saw it, she immediately took it out and joining it to the part given to her she recognized him as her husband. Immediately jumping up she rushed to embrace him, proclaiming that he was her husband Gerard and saying good-bye to her spouse. Nevertheless, out of courtesy Gerard kept the latter with him that night.

In this as in the preceding miracle it is sufficiently evident how much the blessed Apostles love and glorify those who love them.


Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. V, Cap. XVIII. (Vol I, pp. 296, ff.)

Two men simply clad, but not without guile, not sheep but ravening wolves, came to Besançon, feigning the greatest piety. Moreover they were pale and thin, they went about barefooted and fasted daily, they did not miss a single night the matins in the cathedral, nor did they accept anything from any one except a little food. When by such hypocrisy they had attracted the attention of every one, they began to vomit forth their hidden poison and to preach to the ignorant new and unheard of heresies. In order, moreover, that the people might believe their teachings they ordered meal to be sifted on the sidewalk and walked on it without leaving a trace of a footprint. Likewise walking upon the water they could not be immersed; also, they had little huts burnt over their heads, and after those had been burnt to ashes, they came out uninjured. After this they said to the people, 'If you do not believe our words, believe our miracles."

The bishop and the clergy hearing of this were greatly disturbed. And when they wished to resist those men, affirming that they were heretics and deceivers and ministers of the devil, they escaped with difficulty from being stoned by the people. Now that bishop was a good and learned man and a native of our province. Our aged monk, Conrad, who told me these facts and who was in that city at the time, knew him well.

The bishop seeing that his words were of no avail and that the people entrusted to his charge were being subverted from the faith by the devil's agents, summoned a certain clerk that he knew, who was very well versed in necromancy, and said, "Certain men in my city are doing so and so. I ask you to find out from the devil by your art who they are, whence they come, and by what means so many and so wonderful miracles are wrought. For it is impossible that they should do wonders through divine inspiration when their teaching is so contrary to God's." The clerk said, "My lord, I have long renounced that art." The bishop replied, "You see clearly in what straits I am. I must either acquiesce in their teachings or be stoned by the people. Therefore I enjoin upon you for the remission of your sins that yon obey me in this matter."

The clerk, obeying the bishop, summoned the devil, and when asked why he had called him responded, "I am sorry that I have deserted you. And because I desire to be more obedient to you in the future than in the past, I ask you to tell me who these men are, what they teach, and by what means they work so great miracles." The devil replied, "They are mine and sent by me, and they preach what I have placed in their mouths." The clerk responded, "How is it that they cannot be injured, or sunk in the water, or burned by fire?" The demon replied again, "They have under their arm-pits, sewed between the skin and the flesh, my compacts in which the homage done by them to me is written; and by virtue of these they work such miracles and can not be injured by any one." Then the clerk, "What if those should be taken away from them?" The devil replied, "Then they would be weak, just like other men." The clerk having heard this, thanked the demon, saying, "Now go, and when you are summoned by me, return."

He went to the bishop and recited these things to him in order. The latter filled with great joy summoned all the people of the city to a suitable place and said, "I am your shepherd, ye are my sheep. If those men, as you say, confirm their teaching by signs, I will follow them with you. If not, it is fitting that they should be punished and that you should penitently return to the faith of your fathers with me." The people replied, ,We have seen many signs from them. The bishop replied "But I have not seen them." Why protract my words? The plan pleased the people. The heretics were summoned. A fire was kindled in the midst of the city. Nevertheless before the heretics entered it, they were secretly summoned to the bishop. He said to them, "I want to see if you have any evil about you." Hearing this they stripped quickly and said with great confidence, "Search our bodies and our garments carefully." The soldiers, truly, following the instructions of the bishop, raised their arms and noticing under the arm-pits some scars that were healed up broke them open with their knives and extracted from them the little scrolls which had been sewed in.

Having received these the bishop went forth with the heretics to the people and, having commanded silence, cried out in a loud voice, "Now shall your prophets enter the fire, and if they are not injured I will believe in them." The wretched men trembled and said, "We ar not able to enter now." Then the bishop told the people of the evil which had been detected, and showed the compacts. Then all furious hurled the devil's ministers, to be tortured with the devil in eternal flames, into the fire which had been prepared. And thus through the grace of God and the zeal of the bishop the growing heresy was extinguished and the people who had been seduced and corrupted were cleansed by penance.

University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 7-11

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